Album Review: Halsey Draws An Intimate Portrait Of Herself On ‘Manic’
Ashley Nicolette Frangipane (Halsey’s real name) welcomes us further than ever before into her world on Manic. That’s evident with a glance at the LP’s cover art, which proclaims the project is Halsey’s third release (H3) but Ashley’s first (A01). Unlike previous albums where the 25-year-old plays a character or uses intricate metaphors to tell stories, what we get this time comes directly from her point of view. And she paints out her world in small but illuminating brushstrokes across the collection’s 16 songs.
Out January 17, the project houses several familiar numbers. That includes her super-hit “Without Me” as well as a slew of follow-up singles and buzz tracks. There’s also a handful of star-studded collaborations in the mix. All of the above push Halsey’s musicality in a variety of directions. She puts on her Joanne hat and dabbles in country on a song or two, delivers pop perfection on some and interpolates a “Nightmare”-esque rocker edge on others. What unifies the diverse body is her unflinchingly honest lyricism.
That and a spirit of resilience, which comes across on even Manic’s most downtrodden moments. Halsey pulls herself apart and puts herself back together across the tracklist. The end result is her most compelling and deeply layered album to date.
“Someday when I burst into flames, I’ll leave you the dust my love.”
Manic opens on a surprising note by contemplating the end of Halsey on “Ashley.” After an ethereal introduction, the hitmaker touches down and paints an equally lush world. She described the song as a “cautious goodbye” in an interview with Zane Lowe on Apple Music in that it imagines a world after she stops existing or creating. Additionally it serves as a way to ease fans into the body of work by drawing sonic inspiration from Badlands but bridging the gap thematically.
“I don’t need anyone. I just need everyone and then some.”
Halsey celebrated her birthday last year by giving us a gift. That turned out to be “clementine.” Produced alongside John Cunningham, the surprise release finds the artist at her most poetically conflicted as she delivers lyrics over contemplative beats. There’s something particularly compelling about this chorus, which will be lodged in your head for hours on end after a single listen.
“It’s funny how the warning signs can feel like they’re butterflies.”
The fact that “Graveyard” didn’t top the Billboard Hot 100 in 2019 is a criminal offense as far as I’m concerned. The track details just how deeply one can become trapped in a toxic relationship and ranks up with Halsey’s best. You can feel the waves crashing over her head as she lays her emotions out lyrically. And co-producer Jon Bellion’s DNA is all over the intricately layered beats, which build relentlessly underneath her voice. Really, this deserved more.
“I’m so glad I never ever had a baby with you.”
It’s fair to say pop fans get a little nervous when their favs dabble in country. The end result can go one of two ways. Thankfully, Halsey’s foray into twangy rhythms on “You should be sad” is a success story. On it, she flays a partner and displays their flaws to the world at large. Sure, she swears there’s no hard feelings, but it seems like the “Without Me” chart-topper goes straight for the jugular on the chorus. This also marks the first of several collaborations with Greg Kurstin on the LP. Based on what we’re hearing, I’d say they have excellent chemistry.
“Forever … (is a long time)”
“I could never hold a perfect thing and not demolish it.”
Halsey wears her heart on her sleeve for the entirety of Manic. But it’s particularly evident on “Forever … (is a long time).” Here she showcases the ways self-doubt can ruin a relationship that once seemed so bright. Twinkling keys set the scene for the breathlessly shared love story at the song’s beginning. However, there’s a darker cast to her voice following a mood-changing piano segment. It’s so striking that you almost cannot believe the same person is delivering both sides of the story.
“Talk to your man. Tell him he got bad news coming.”
Manic is held together by three interludes. Later ones find Halsey sharing sonic space with fellow stars. But the first – “Dominic’s Interlude” – only features the voice of Dominic Fike. Acting as a sequel of sorts to “Forever … (is a long time)” this one finds the featured talent urging Halsey to be honest with her partner about their crumbling relationship. And his message is delivered over a lush soundscape (I’m getting Queen vibes) that effortlessly translates into what comes next on “I HATE EVERYBODY.”
“I HATE EVERYBODY”
“If I could make you love me, maybe you could make me love me.”
“I HATE EVERYBODY” brings an end to a trio of songs on the tracklist. This one features a production credit from Billie Eilish’s brother FINNEAS and some of the LP’s most conflicted writing. On it Halsey opens up about how easily she falls for people who are disinterested, voices her desire to learn how to love herself and also shares her conflicted feelings about humanity. Does she hate everyone? Or is she addicted to human connection? To be determined. The end result is basically the definition of relatable content, though.
“I need it digital ’cause baby when it’s physical I end up alone.
Greg Kurstin takes over production duties again on “3am,” which finds Halsey longing for a connection after a wild night out. There’s a twist: Instead of searching for a face-to-face meet-up, her goal is to stay on the phone. Why? Because it offers her a way to protect her heart. The rock-infused strings and drums add an appropriate edge. This is a moment that deserves a single treatment at some point. Considering our reliance on technology to foster relationships via dating apps and texting, it is all but guaranteed to resonate and race up the charts.
“Thinking you could live without me.”
Although it’s been out for almost a year-and-a-half, “Without Me” impressively still sounds as good as ever and remains a vital addition to Manic’s tracklist. Produced by Louis Bell and interpolating lyrics from Justin Timberlake’s “Cry Me A River,” this has without doubt become a staple on any modern-day breakup playlist.
“I think it’s finally, finally, finally, finally, finally safe for me to fall.”
Immediately after the barbed message on “Without Me,” Halsey lets her guard down and dares to dream of a happier ending on “Finally // beautiful stranger.” Softly strummed strings set the scene for an intimate moment shared with a new romantic partner. And there’s a real conviction to her proclamation that she’s landed on someone who won’t leave her broken hearted after it’s all said and done.
“‘Cause your pussy is a wonderland, and I could be a better man.”
Manic’s second interlude features vocals from Alanis Morissette and emerges as an ode to Halsey’s bisexuality. Laying their voices over a crashing production courtesy of frequent collaborator Peder Losnegård, the twosome finds an easy chemistry. Lyrically this works nicely as a sequel to “Strangers” off hopeless fountain kingdom. This time Halsey seems more at ease with her sexuality than she did on the collaboration with Lauren Jauregui. Making it even more iconic is what feels like an explicit spin on the chorus of John Mayer’s “Your Body Is A Wonderland.”
“I’m not breaking. I won’t take it. And I won’t ever feel this way again.”
“Boys are just placeholders. They come, and they go,” Meghan Fox says over a steadily beating heart on the opening lines of “killing boys.” The quote (sampled from Jennifer’s Body) sets the tone for Halsey’s incandescent rage. Although she’s plotting revenge that entails keying a Ferrari and breaking into an ex’s house, her voice maintains a deceptively sweet tone throughout the majority of the breezy anthem. Partly because it is more a celebration of her independence than it is about getting even with a no-good lover.
“I wonder what’s in store if I don’t love it anymore.”
The LP’s final interlude acts as a reunion. On it she gets back together with SUGA of BTS. And the duet takes a decidedly more dreamlike approach than the diva’s collaboration with the K-Pop Kings on “Boy With Luv.” Here, they lay their voices over a gently unwinding production. Halsey’s soft delivery of the chorus works as the perfect foil to the rapper’s sharper tone on the verses.
“When you decide it’s your time to arrive, I’ve loved you for all of my life.”
Manic delves into a variety of emotions across its 16 tracks. But nothing is more of an emotional sucker punch than the longing Halsey displays on “More.” The sparse ballad is something of a lullaby dedicated to an unborn child. It also details her experience with endometriosis, a diagnosis which caused her to suffer three miscarriages over the years. You can hear every ounce of pain that she’s experienced as a result of those losses. However, what’s even more evident is her resilience and the unfiltered desire for a chance at motherhood. This is one of the album’s most arresting moments and a testament to Halsey’s ability to turn pure feeling into music.
“I know that I love you, but I’m still learning to love myself.”
Ed Sheeran lends his mighty pen to “Still Learning,” which is another personal favorite off Manic. On it, Halsey gets real about her struggles with self-worth. Sure, she’s a superstar who appears to have her life together. But that’s far from the reality as she illustrates on the verses. Where the song really hits its stride though is the racing chorus. Simple but direct and very honest, this is a message that everyone will be able to relate to on some level.
“Soft and slow, watch the minutes go.”
The album closes out with a “929.” The title is a reference to Halsey’s birth date (September 29), and the song is every bit as personal as she delivers stream of conscience-esque lyrics over sparse beats. It’s a strong final moment that brings a multitude of themes discussed across the tracklist (love, loneliness, self-doubt and relationships to name a few) together under one title. The end result is a snapshot that captures the portrait of Ashley Nicolette Frangipane at the exact moment it was recorded.